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July 2014
Issue: January 1, 2009

AUDIO FOR INDIES AND DOCUMENTARIES

By: Christine Bunish
Even though they are often budget-challenged, independent films increasingly recognize the importance of quality production sound and truly professional audio post. Many are consulting early with audio post houses to assure they allocate sufficient funds and prep for a smooth and easy finish.

MYSTERY TEAM

Working on independent films requires proficiency in all areas of audio post because people are often multitasking, notes sound designer/mixer Ryan Heiferman of New York City’s Big Yellow Duck (www.bigyellowduck.com). “There isn’t the budget for a separate person for each facet of the sound like there is on big-budget Hollywood features,” he observes. “We’ve got two or three main people and a couple assistants doing it all here, but fewer people tightly knit makes for a more collaborative process. I can sit with [sound designer/mixer] Lou Esposito when he’s sound designing and give him my perspective, and he can sit with me when I’m mixing and tell me what he was going for with a certain sound and how he envisioned it to sound. We push each other to do the best work possible.”
Heiferman and Esposito recently partnered on full audio post for the indie comedy Mystery Team, which was accepted at Sundance this year. When the picture locked, Esposito began by having spotting sessions with director Dan Eckman. He was assisted by sound effects editors Aria Boediman and Bob Dziemian.
Heiferman got started with dialogue, which was “a bit troublesome; the director and editor used takes that the production sound person probably wouldn’t have wanted them to use,” he recalls. “Some takes used were harsh and brittle sounding, and there was some distortion to deal with. I had all the takes at my disposal on a drive so I could quickly replace words from other takes when necessary. Having all the sound logs from the production sound mixer, Matt Janson, made this possible.”
With the help of dialogue mixer Keith Hodne, he deployed Digidesign EQ-3 and Waves Restoration to warm things up and notch out noise, and tapped Eventide’s Harmonizer, Digidesign’s Lo-Fi and EQ-3 for CB-radio and public address announcement effects, as well as Waves Convolution Reverb for room effects.
Esposito devised numerous other reality-based sound effects. For a kidnapping segment he crafted the sound of an auto accident with skids and impact, and the subsequent chase through the woods fleeing the bad guy. “They didn’t use any production sound,” he says. “They needed hyper-reality from a more powerful skid-to-braking with four or five different tire squeals to make it engaging for the viewer. I recreated sneakers on crunchy leaves in the woods and heavy breathing behind a tree and doppled a car in the background whose sound changed as it passed by.”
He did a lot of Foley, including numerous bike-related sounds such as wheel spokes, tires on gravel and cement surfaces, screeching brakes and the rubbery, floppy sound of a flat tire. He used Digidesign Pro Tools|HD with MOTU’s Mach 5 sampler to drag-and-drop library sound files onto the keyboard and build presets for himself and Heiferman. He recorded Foley into Pro Tools where he cleaned it up, enhanced it and dropped it onto the sampler.
For a shot where a ring was dropped into a disgusting toilet filled with muck, Esposito’s initial sound design was “super gross,” he admits. “Dan thought it was too over the top and not realistic — the sight of the toilet was disgusting enough. So I pulled back and after my third try it was what he wanted.” To achieve the appropriate sounds he “squished up stuff, like grapefruit, against each other for a suction-y, mucky sound, then put it on the sampler, manipulated the higher frequencies and slowed it down.”
In the mix, Heiferman used EQ and Convolution Reverb to make sure Esposito’s layers of effects “sounded like they were coming from the same place. “A lot of mixing is subtraction — taking out what you don’t need,” he explains. “Sometimes you have to remove sound so there isn’t too much clutter. Like when there were five bikes coming toward camera. Hearing all five didn’t play well: maybe we needed to hear three that had distinct sounds and keep the other two really low so it sounded more realistic. When you go outside, there’s tons of noise going on, but do you really hear it all at the same time? As a mixer you need to hone in on certain sounds to guide the viewer through a scene.”
Heiferman performed a stereo mix for Mystery Team on Pro Tools|HD, which he often “maxes out” for feature work. He delivered the stereo mix with dialogue and sound effects stems to facilitate additional mixes that may be needed in the future.
He notes that most indie films can’t afford separate mixes for theatrical distribution and DVD release. “You want good sound in both places, but separate mixes are usually not in the budget. Ideally, you want a more dynamic mix for the theater and a different mix for the DVD because it will be seen in a different listening environment.” He ends up compromising to “get a mix that will work well for both environments.”

A POWERFUL NOISE


Despite the challenges of being shot in Vietnam, Bosnia and Mali, the documentary A Powerful Noise (www.apowerfulnoise.org), did not pose the expected location sound problems for Greg Crawford, senior sound designer/audio manager at Crawford Post Production (www.crawfordpost.com), a division of Crawford Communications in Atlanta. “Sound recordist Evan McIntosh did an extraordinary job given the circumstances — run ‘n’ gun on the streets, in hospitals — there’s not a studio shot to be found,” he notes.
A documentary about women changing the world, A Powerful Noise was executive produced by Sheila C. Johnson in partnership with the humanitarian organization CARE. It was produced and directed by Scott Thigpen and Tom Cappello, respectively, who weave together the stories of three women on three continents — an HIV-positive widow in Vietnam, a survivor of the Bosnian war, and a slum worker in Mali — and examine their daily challenges and significant victories over poverty and oppression.
“A lot of times indie filmmakers don’t call us until they need something fixed or are looking for a post house,” Crawford reports. “We had contact with Evan before he left the country and got on the same page, and it paid off for everyone.”
McIntosh recorded dual system, and his tracks had no distortion whatsoever, “which is very uncommon in indie features and docs today,” says Crawford. Some locations proved “completely impossible to record in,” however, requiring Crawford to deploy some Pro Tools noise reduction plug-ins for clean up.
Whenever possible McIntosh would also “collect front or front and rear stereo backgrounds so we could build backgrounds from his wild sound,” he points out. “I encourage this practice as a quick and easy way to get surround sound tracks: stand and record in one direction, turn around, take a few steps and record in the other direction. That way you get a big sound field and don’t have to worry about how they will fold down in stereo and mono.”
Even flawed wild sound is helpful in post, he notes. “At least it will give a hint of what the location is like if we have to rebuild,” he says.
One location actually proved a bit too quiet. When the African woman visited a gravesite “there was no wind, no birds, nothing,” Crawford recalls. “We created a little textural wind to weave in with the score to create a bit of tension.”
Crawford takes a hybrid approach to audio post, using a Pro Tools|HD 7.4 system to clean up and process dialogue, layer in sound effects and lay in music. Then he moves to an SSL Avant console to build out the stems. “Especially when I mix in surround, the console offers flexibility for bussing and listening to individual stems quickly and easily,” he says.
A Powerful Noise was mastered to HDCAM SR with Crawford delivering Dolby E and stereo mixes for the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. It has since played other festivals and will be seen in 440 theaters nationwide, for one night, on March 5. Additional Crawford credits include sound designer Steve Warner, senior editor Ron Heidt for the HD conform, and senior colorist DC Cardinali for color correction. Crawford Post also did the titling and subtitling for the film.

SEA OF DUST


A tribute to ’60s gothic horror movies and the head-scratching Midnight Movies of the early ’70s, Sea of Dust (www.seaofdust. com) has been long awaited by aficionados of the genre. As it moved from production to post over a three-year period, the feature posed unique challenges for recording engineer Paul Michael at New York City’s Magno Sound & Video (www.magnosoundandvideo.com), who changed rooms and audio consoles during that time.
“I moved from a large film-style studio with an SSL Avant console to another room with a Pro Tools ICON D-Control,” he reports. “The large-format consoles are slowly being replaced, especially in New York, with the cost of real estate and space constraints. We’ve now switched to work surface-style consoles. The old console was designed so its channels, faders and inputs always stayed the same, they were always dedicated. Once you established your track assignments and inputs/outputs, you could at a glance see everything, which made it easy to navigate through mixes that had many tracks. But one of the downsides was that you couldn’t automate any outboard gear. You had to write down the settings and what was used at a particular timecode so you could revise things later.”
Moving to the ICON D-Control has proved to be a positive change for Michael, however. “It’s a large console, with 40 faders, so it mimics the track access of the old one, and everything, including delays, reverbs, et cetera, is automated,” he notes. “The big difference is that almost every knob and button is soft and assignable. The console automation is very flexible but possibly a little less intuitive than the film console’s. One of the big pluses is the ability to easily make adjustments within the timeline. I can cut picture and sound to match a client’s revised edit and all of the automation and assignments follow.”
His new room was built to serve indie films, he points out. “It offers feature mixing at a reasonable cost. The ability to pack a large-format console’s technology into a smaller mainframe allows us to downsize the room and not lose any capability. The new room takes up less real estate,which allows us to have a feature-film mixing environment that’s still profitable to us and competitively-priced for producers.”
Still working in the SSL studio, Michael dealt with production sound for Sea of Dust, which fell short of optimum due to locations like cavernous catacombs and exteriors with cicada chatter. “There were a lot of long shots you couldn’t really boom,” he says. “If it had been a big-budget feature, the location sound would have been usable as a guide track, and we would have looped 50 to 70 percent.” Instead, Michael did significant sound restoration with NoNoise and outboard gear like Dolby CAT 43s.
He also credits Magno’s Dolby-certified screening room as being “key to making Sea of Dust work. Indie filmmakers generally mix in a small room or project studio and have to hope that the mix will sound the same when it is print mastered. We can mix the film in the studio and when we are ready to print master we can remote everything to one of the best screening rooms in the city. When we do reviews or print mastering we watch the film on a theater-size screen with certified speakers and make any adjustments needed in that environment.”
Although Michael did his best to match material from new scenes and revised music tracks to his old mix using the original 5.1 stems on the new console, he discovered he was “off a bit” when he listened in the screening room. “It was a matter of getting comfortable with my new mixing environment; so I made the adjustments in the screening room and it was seamless. It was a great feeling to be able to tweak and immediately print it.”
A 5.1 mix is not a luxury but a necessity for indie filmmakers today, he adds. “A distributor will want a 5.1 mix, and a 5.1 mix on a DVD gives it greater marketability.” Sea of Dust has received rave reviews on the festival circuit and won the Best Picture award at the Rhode Island International Film Festival.

JUNKYARD DOG

Hollywood’s Digital Jungle (www.digijungle.com) has begun working on writer/director Kim Bass’s psychological thriller Junkyard Dog (www.bassentertainmentpictures.com), starring Vivica A. Fox. “We’re providing the full DI with all the VFX conform, compositing and color grading, and all the audio post,” says president Dennis Ho. “We recently finished the color correction, editorial, compositing and the mix for the Website teaser trailer.”
Based on FBI files, the film concerns an FBI agent [Fox] who’s investigating the latest in a series of missing girls when she, too, disappears. Captured by the serial killer and his sinister devil dog she finds herself imprisoned in an underground dungeon with the most recent young victim.
At press time, re-recording mixer Lisa Baro had just finished a spotting session with Bass. She will do the effects editing with sound libraries using Soundminer for effects search and auditioning, supervise the Foley and ADR recording sessions, and perform the final mix.
“We try to minimize the amount of ADR and Foley for indies,” says Baro. “It’s hard to get good dialogue at the indie budget level and dialogue is always the most important thing. But this film has surprisingly clean production dialogue.” Any clean-up required will likely be done with McDSP and Wave Arts plug-ins for Pro Tools.
She believes the spotting session with Bass was crucial for “getting his ideas and feelings about the film so I can go into sound design with that in my head. Having his perspective will save me a lot of time. With audio there’s no wrong or right, it’s what you prefer. I’ll do a few reels and get Kim’s feedback to make sure we’re on the same page: It takes a little while to learn your director, but once you do you’re set for the film.”
She plans to do sound design with Digidesign’s new Structure sampler plug-in,  which enables her to manipulate sounds via  a keyboard, an interface she favors. “I can access banks of sounds quickly, like a palette of creepy interior sounds, instead of cutting in tracks. And I can process MIDI tracks as if they were audio tracks; the MIDI functions in Pro Tools have improved dramatically.”
While the dungeon is, indeed, a creepy environment, it’s so far underground that “no outside sounds are heard, so that’s a bit challenging,” she reports. In creating sound design for the devil dog, Baro has to keep in mind that “he’s still a dog but does devil dog things,” so he’ll probably sound “more devil than dog-like” with a growl that’s been processed.”
Baro says a 5.1 mix is routine for indies today. “Once you’ve built the template, it doesn’t make sense to start with a stereo mix anymore. You want to start with the highest quality and fold down to stereo; you don’t want to go backwards.”

$5 A DAY

Independent films come in all budget levels, from a director’s debut film shot on a shoestring to those that are better funded and attract big-name talent. Mercury Sound Studios (www.mercurysoundstudios.com) in Glendale, CA, is a full-service audio post facility specializing in TV movies and indie films with production budgets of $1 million and up.
The studio recently provided audio post for director Nigel Cole’s road comedy $5 A Day, starring Christopher Walken, Alessandro Nivola, Sharon Stone and Amanda Peet. It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival.
As a road picture, it featured cross-country locations that could have made production sound an issue. But, as it turned out, the producers hired “a good sound recordist,” which made all the difference, according to lead sound supervisor Patrick O’Sullivan. “Production sound is one of the areas you can’t go cheap on; it can cause so many problems later on.”
Still, some locations were problematic, such as “motels near freeways, a lake, the Atlantic City pier with a rollercoaster in the background,” notes managing director Michael Sable. But clean-up and ADR was minimal overall.
$5 A Day was “not top heavy in sound design” either, recalls O’Sullivan. “It was more a case of depth and details. Nigel was very specific about what he wanted for every location, from the clatter in a busy restaurant kitchen to the signature sound of Christopher Walken’s car.”
It took a lot of trial and error to make that car sound “kind of goofy but not old — it was new,” O’Sullivan points out. “We recorded a four-cylinder sound and added in other prerecorded library sounds and [applied] tricks throughout.” Mercury Sound also recreated rides on the Atlantic City pier from library tracks, added wind and laid group ADR of funseekers to a bed of library crowd walla.
“The picture was a mixture of intimate two- or three-character scenes and atmospheric sounds,” notes Sable. “We put no less energy into making a film like this happen than we do for a big action film with exciting sound effects,” O’Sullivan adds.
The film was mixed by Samuel Lehmer and Mark Ettel on one of Mercury’s THX-certified 5.1 mix stages, which is equipped with a Euphonix System 5 dual-operator digital console. Pro Tools was the on-stage editing system feeding the console’s film-style mix.
“Capitol Films knew what they needed going into the mix and left with all the deliverables required to this point,” Sable reports. Mercury provided a 5.1 mix and LTRT printmaster along with a full list of deliverables, including the M&E, mix stems and a DM&E. The latter is “often used for trailers and promos,” he explains. “The DM&E keeps stereo dialogue tracks separate from stereo music and stereo effects; it’s often loaded into the editing system at the trailer company.”

NEW YORK, I LOVE YOU


At New York City’s Goldcrest Post (www.goldcrestpost.com) the majority of clients are independent filmmakers. “They don’t often have deep pockets, so we’re able to offer them bigger savings by keeping everything under one roof, from the offline to audio and picture finishing,” says post production producer Jeanne Sison.
Sometimes filmmakers call on Goldcrest when they’re putting the budget together or beginning to shoot so the company can “walk them through the entire process,” she explains. This is especially beneficial for first-time filmmakers.
“There is added value in packages at Goldcrest: Clients can prep and edit in our rooms, complete their voiceovers, ADR, Foley, sound editorial, final mix, Dolby printmaster and, of course, picture finish their 2K or HD project all under one roof with our producers managing the project through the facility,” notes Sison. “In fact, with our five sound theaters in London we can also include ISDN ADR sessions, all managed internally.”
Seasoned film veterans like Academy Award-winning documentarian Morgan Spurlock know the drill. He teamed with supervising sound editor Lew Goldstein and Goldcrest on the voiceover narration, mix and printmaster for his Where In the World Is Osama Bin Laden?
Goldstein maintains offices at Goldcrest where he also worked on New York, I Love You, the companion feature to the popular Paris, Je T’Aime. The New York version featured vignettes directed by Brett Ratner, Mira Nair, Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson, among others. “The film had high-profile talent, but it was an indie feature,” Sison says. “They did their premixes here along with ADR and Foley.”
Goldcrest boasts a full Foley stage, with pits and a prop closet, which also serves as one of two ADR rooms. Theater A acted as the main mix theater for each vignette; it’s a Dolby-certified 5.1 room outfitted with an ICON board.
Most films require a “festival finish,” which has Goldcrest crafting a 5.1 mix and folding down to LTRT or stereo to meet the typical need for an HDCAM master. “Since HDCAMs only have four channels of audio, the 5.1 is then encoded to two channels which, when decoded, play out 5.1 when projected at festivals,” Sison explains.
“Nothing is printmastered because if the picture is sold, the distributor may want to make changes,” she points out, “and that could get expensive.”
Likewise, prep is done for a foreign M&E, but no work is done until a distribution deal is signed. “I can’t impress enough upon people the importance of sitting down with the facility or supervising sound editor and looking at the big picture,” she says.
Goldcrest also attracts names like director Luc Besson who, at press time, had scheduled a five-day ADR session with engineer Matt Snedecor for an unnamed rock star who was voicing a character for a pair of shorts to be animated by Buf in Paris. A full video crew recorded the session so animators can capture his lipsync.